By Kevin Yee
Welcome to Insider Top Tips. This column proposes to amalgamate some of the best “insider” tips for visiting Orlando and its world-famous attractions. Think of it as “tips from a local.”
I’m a local now, of course, though like most Floridians, I was a transplant from somewhere else (in my case, from Southern California and Disneyland, with stops in the Midwest and North Carolina along the way). I’ve been in Orlando since early 2004, and an East-coaster since 2002. Moving into the area has its advantages, since I got to experience the confusion, and sometimes frustration, of being new to just about everything.
There’s no shortage of information out there about visiting Orlando. You can find Web sites with volumes of data and ideas, and entire books (some the size of encyclopedias) chock full of things to see and do. I propose to do something a little different. First, this blog will be more selective; these are only the “top” tips. Second, I’m going to try to keep a broader focus than just rides and shows. You’ll find ideas here about effective planning, saving time, saving money, ensuring as smooth an experience as possible, and other such wide-ranging topics.
We’ll kick things off with a look at navigating around Orlando. Today’s article will be helpful only if you’re not using Disney’s shuttle service, Disney’s Magical Express, offered for free to guests of their hotels. If you have that service, you’re likely not traveling beyond Walt Disney World and have no need to navigate the streets at all. This is also true if you’re using the Mears shuttle service, the main source of transportation from Orlando International Airport to hotels.
For visitors wanting a more free-form experience, you’ll want to rent a car. This frees you up to visit different parks, and gives you enormous flexibility with timetables. (Expect a lot of waiting for buses and shuttles if you don’t have your own car, especially in peak moments such as closing time.). Some visitors may opt to rent a car once away from the airport (Disney’s Car Care Center offers Alamo rentals from the Magic Kingdom parking lot, for instance.), but it’s most common to arrange for car rentals from the airport directly. There’s even an entire floor in the terminal dedicated to these rental car counters.
But do you really know your way around Orlando? You probably know about Interstate 4, the main artery diagonally bisecting the city. (I-4 gives rise to a pun on Magic Kingdom’s Main Street, where one window honors the “Ayefour Corporation”.) And if you rented a car from the airport, you probably also encountered State route 528 (aka, the Beachline, formerly Bee Line). It’s an east-west toll road that passes right by the airport and is the conduit most visitors use to get to I-4 and the theme parks.
It’s possible you followed the signs from the airport, which prompt you to either head south away from SR-528, or even head on SR-528 “away” from I-4. What’s behind the ploy is to get more clueless tourists using an alternate route to Disney World, another toll road called Sate route 417. The SR-417 is longer and involves more tolls than the SR-528, hence the misleading signs.
All the major theme parks line up along I-4. You’ve got Disney in the south, SeaWorld in the middle, and Universal at the top. Some visitors know that a side-street connecting all of them, parallel to I-4, is International Drive (I-Drive). Indeed, this has become such an important conduit for tourists that countless hotels and restaurants have set up shop on I-Drive.
The trouble is, that level of activity translates into enormous traffic problems, sometimes even honest to goodness gridlock. Find yourself on I-Drive on a Friday night, for instance, and you could be in for a long wait to make it a few miles. As a result, you’ll want to bone up on alternate routes.
Your first choice as an alternate to I-Drive should be Universal Boulevard, which is a bit misleading since it doesn’t actually intersect with the Universal parks. It’s also parallel to I-4, and is “one street over” from I-Drive, further from I-4. Driving speeds here are unimpeded, and it’s a life-saver to skip past all the I-Drive traffic. Frequent cross-roads here all lead from I-Drive to Universal Boulevard; simply head away from the freeway to find the next stoplight and you should locate it.
Your second choice is Turkey Lake Road, which also parallels I-4, but on the other side from I-Drive. I’ve found drivers on Turkey Lake Road to be a touch more impatient, perhaps implying a higher percentage of locals. This may make the drive over here a bit more stressful, plus it’s a little easier to get lost as you approach Walt Disney World from the north. (Short version: It turns into Palm Parkway, then you’ll want to turn left at Apopka Vineland Road, also known as State route 535, before rejoining I-4 or simply turning into Downtown Disney via Hotel Plaza Boulevard.) There’s even a way to connect the dots between Turkey Lake, Universal Boulevard, Sand Lake Road and Apopka-Vineland Road, but that’s probably more than you need to know.
It may sound complicated (and on your first drive, it probably is), but trust me, when bottleneck sets in, you’ll do just about anything to avoid the very long delay you risk facing on I-4 or I-Drive. My advice is to print a copy of this story and keep it in your rental car, just in case.
• Kevin Yee is a theme park enthusiast and author. He’s written seven books about Disney theme parks, including his most recent work, an interactive children’s book called “Your Day at the Magic Kingdom“. He visits at least two Central Florida theme parks per week, and is now working on an upcoming book compiling all the best tips for a trip to Orlando. You can find out more about Kevin at his Web site, ultimateorlando.com.